Obama tells Congress to 'seize the moment' on climate legislation

President Obama challenged the country last night to unify behind a "national mission" to reduce its reliance on oil and coal, using his first Oval Office address to pressure Congress into acting quickly on clean energy legislation.

The primetime speech sought to confront stinging criticism around the president's handling of the wayward oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an ongoing catastrophe that has stretched on for nearly two months, with crude still pouring from the open BP well.

Obama promised to make the oil giant place billions into a holding account that would be used to compensate people who've lost wages, before pivoting into a sweeping promotion of a renewable power economy that would prevent future disasters like the spill while creating jobs.

"Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor," Obama said. "The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight."

"We cannot consign our children to this future," he added. "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America's innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

The speech comes as the Senate lurches forward uncertainly, having failed to build momentum behind a climate bill by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Majority Leader Harry Reid is scheduled to convene his caucus tomorrow to lay out a path forward, a move that could determine if the Senate will seek to place a price on carbon this year.

Obama did not mention that provision specifically, but praised the House for passing a bill that capped carbon dioxide emissions one year ago. He also noted the "set of principles" he promoted as a candidate for president, which included charging emitters for releasing greenhouse gases.


"The fact that he spoke about how he ran as a candidate on the principle of passing comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation is a reminder I think that he has a mandate to get that done," said Daniel Lashof, the climate center director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I think the president called on the Senate to move forward and meet the principles that he had laid out."

Right push, right time

Obama did not mention the American Power Act introduced by Kerry and Lieberman, as he has in past speeches. Nor did he explicitly address climate change, focusing instead of the risks of fossil fuels, like environmental calamities and siphoning billions to oil-exporting countries. The absence of a presidential directive to pursue cap and trade might leave some senators wanting more.

"I am particularly hopeful that he will underscore the relationship between creating by law a market mechanism for pricing carbon, because that's the only way we will spur the investment and innovation that will create millions of new jobs to solve the problem," Lieberman told reporters before the speech.

"Trying to make America energy-independent without creating a market-mechanism to price carbon would be the equivalent of President Kennedy launching our national effort to put a man on the moon without building a rocket."

Still, others believe the president boldly articulated the case for cap and trade by punctuating the House's passage of a "comprehensive energy and climate bill" last June.

"I think it's the right push at the right time," said David Hunter, director of U.S. policy with the International Emissions Trading Association and a former climate aide to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key swing vote on climate legislation. "It gives an opportunity to get legislation done this summer. It's a narrow window, but it is there."

"I thought the president hit a homerun tonight," said Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "I think he made a strong case that the situation in the Gulf is not unrelated to the choices we make for our energy future."

Obama did not limit his options to cap and trade, as he suggested two weeks ago when he vowed to help Kerry and Lieberman find 60 votes for their bill. Instead, the president acknowledged that he's "happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party - as long as they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels."

'Tenuous' connection between spill and bill

Those include proposals to raise efficiency standards for buildings and establish a national renewable electricity standard that would require more use of wind and solar power.

"All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead," Obama said. "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet."

It's unclear if the speech, which borrowed from Obama's campaign themes of unity and hope, will resonate with Republicans, who are hearing from a conservative movement that's angered by expanded government programs and rising national debt.

"A carbon tax or cap and trade system is a non-starter in this Congress," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who's proposed legislation to reduce emissions through conservation, said in a statement. "Instead, we should pass an energy bill that will reduce our need for imported oil and save Americans money, even while it cuts greenhouse gas emissions."

Obama's increasing use of the oil spill to press for energy legislation has begun to attract critics. The Kerry-Lieberman legislation, as well as the House bill, slash emissions largely from electric utilities.

"I don't think the oil spill helps you sell cap and trade," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview yesterday. "Well, because cap and trade ain't about breaking your dependency on foreign oil. It's about controlling emissions, right?

"It's not disingenuous. It just won't work," he added. "People are going to see, OK you got an oil spill. Now tell me why I should put a cap-and-trade system in place on utilities. The connection is going to be tenuous."

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